Straight from the dark heart of Italy
The weather is better, the food far more delicious and you can walk around wearing as many medallions as you want without anybody batting an eyelid. Mario Balotelli should have no problem readjusting to life in Italy, where he can also drive his car at whichever speed takes his fancy and park it wherever he darn well wants.
Now back on safe ground, the King of Bling felt confident to put the boot into English life in what had been a caustic, and at times downright nasty, press conference to announce his arrival at AC Milan.
The three British journalists present were given short shrift, with a Sun reporter halted in mid-sentence as he attempted to ask a question.
The home-based media had already set the tone, with state broadcaster RAI crowbarring in their Silvio Berlusconi dig about “rotten apples” before following up with a critique on racism in Italy and Balotelli’s role at the vanguard of eradicating it.
There were few smiles to be had on what was meant to be a day of celebration for the return of Italy’s wayward footballing talent.
Having got on the wrong side of the player and Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani from the beginning, there was little insight on how the club would best accommodate the 22-year-old’s talents. But a hint of what would lie ahead came when Balotelli revealed he may finally smile when he scores.
He is, after all, a boyhood Milan fan – a fact he never hid during his time at Inter, where he once reportedly entered the dressing room singing the Rossoneri club anthem.
Balotelli may have come across as some kind of anti-hero during his time in the Premier League but back in these more restraining surroundings he will be expected to live a much more monastic existence.
It is his off-pitch exploits that Milan will want to temper - Galliani has already endured too many sleepless nights dealing with Ronaldinho’s nocturnal wanderings.
So, he would have been thrilled to read that Mario’s brother Enoch had already planned a party on Sunday night to celebrate his sibling’s debut against Udinese.
There had been a typically raucous Italian welcome at the club’s favourite eatery on Wednesday evening. Accompanied by the standard fanfare of riot police, flares and the odd baton charge, Circus Mario had officially arrived.
There was certainly a festive atmosphere at the San Siro ahead of Sunday evening’s match, and Balotelli was not about to disappoint the 40,000 crowd. He was given an unexpected start after Giampaolo Pazzini suffered a thigh strain in the warm-up. Berlusconi, meanwhile, made a rare appearance in the stands.
After five minutes’ preparation, he needed only 30 seconds to almost open the scoring after a darting run and low shot just wide of the post.
However, destiny’s child did not have to wait long to leave his mark. It came on 25 minutes when he lashed home Stephan El Shaarawy’s deflected cross from the byline.
The Jesus-like pose was accompanied by a grin rarely, if ever, seen in Manchester. By scoring, Balotelli followed in the footsteps of other Berlusconi luminaries; Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, George Weah and Alexandre Pato, who all scored on their debuts for the club.
A deft flick to send in the third member of the “Crest” attack – dubbed from their distinctive spiky trims – M’baye Niang, almost helped double the lead. Moments before he had hammered a stunning long-range effort from a standing start, which goalkeeper Daniele Padelli pushed over the bar.
At this stage the man they call Super Mario looked head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch. There was no doubt he was in his true element, thriving in the knowledge that this was his night.
When the Rossoneri were awarded a last-minute penalty after El Shaarawy was challenged cleanly in the area by Thomas Heurtaux, Balotelli coolly (how else?) slotted home to seal victory.
There is no doubt his arrival has transformed Milan into a true Serie A force once more. With young promise in abundance, Galliani must be rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of a frontline locked down for the next eight to 10 years.
Playing through the middle, Balotelli’s link-play with Niang and El Shaarawy was at times radar-like – and it was his weighted pass that sent the latter sprinting into the area for the late penalty.
His movement away from goal and excellent hold-up play drew some hefty challenges, akin to Zlatan Ibrahimovic during his final season at the San Siro. Midfield runners could exploit the space behind the defence, as Mathieu Flamini did to good effect on Sunday.
While Massimiliano Allegri will want his midfielders to press higher and make full use of that energy in attack, his team’s problems lie elsewhere. When possession is lost they are exposed to quick counter-attacks, as was the case when Giampiero Pinzi netted Udinese’s equaliser from a two-on-one situation.
While the backline still looks vulnerable, it is a different story going forward. If Balotelli can stay focused, even at the tender age of 22, he can become the focal point rather than maverick luxury for Milan's new generation.
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